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The Growing Need for Opposition Research -- on Yourself -- in Today's Political World

After the blackface scandals involving Virginia politicians, expect more candidates to dig up dirt on themselves while keeping in mind the changing culture of America and the power of the internet.

Ralph Northam blackface scandal
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and his wife Pam.
The past is never dead. For all the warnings millennials have received about making sure their social media accounts are kept clean so they won't come back to haunt them later in their careers, lately it's been baby boomers and Gen Xers tripped up by analog documents from the past.

The series of recent scandals in Virginia was kicked off by the emergence of a 35-year-old yearbook page from Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam's medical school days. Back in September, members of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee grilled then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh about entries in his high school yearbook and the calendar he kept as a student.

Now reporters all over the country are scouring old yearbooks, looking for more examples of racist or otherwise disturbing images or language from the deep past of politicians. Last week, the Virginian-Pilot reported that Virginia Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment served as managing editor for a Virginia Military Institute yearbook edition that was filled with racial slurs and blackface photos. 

All of this suggests that opposition research -- as well as self-research, which refers to candidates hiring investigators to look into their own closets -- will be a growing field in the years ahead.

"With these stories, any credible candidate is immediately going to understand the importance of self-research and not make that an issue," says Democratic strategist Tracy Sefl. "Anything that can be shared, discovered or commented upon needs to be uncovered, preferably by one's own team."

In a partisan age, long-ago offenses -- whether serious or slight -- are likely to be seized upon by political enemies and media, says David Carney, a Republican consultant.

"Social media itself is so easily offended by everything, we're in a gotcha kind of mode," he says. "No one has any interest in forgiving or forgetting."

The things that might be forgiven change over time. Not that long ago, evidence of past marijuana use would be disqualifying for a candidate. But this week, the Twitter universe was debating Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris' claim that she smoked pot in college, implying she was trying to inflate her street cred.

By contrast, what Northam has found -- along with so many lawmakers brought down by #metoo revelations about sexual harassment -- is that there is now less tolerance for offenses regarding race and gender than there was in the past.

Back when politics was more strictly an old boys' club, many offenses were often winked at rather than frowned upon, says Matthew Hennessy, a Democratic political consultant. Not anymore.

"People ask different questions when it's not just older white males running the show," Hennessy says. "When you have more African-Americans and women [in power], you're going to answer for it. People are putting it on the table that these behaviors in the past are relevant to how we talk about these issues in the present."


Why Candidates Should Do Opposition Research on Themselves

Opposition research -- digging up dirt on one's opponents in hopes of embarrassing them during the campaign -- is a time-honored tradition in politics. For that reason, it's important for candidates to look into their own pasts so their campaigns aren't caught off-guard when revelations turn up.

Still, politicians are often reluctant to spend money to hire investigators to look at themselves. They often believe they have a good enough memory for anything that might look bad, and they're reluctant to spend money on something that's potentially onerous and upsetting to go through.

But professional opposition researchers say that self-research is essential.

"It's a very cost-effective investment for a candidate," Sefl says. "They may balk at the initial cost, but it's cheaper than lawyers and certainly cheaper than television commercials featuring your yearbook."

Sometimes candidates don't have a strong enough sense themselves of what will play badly for them. Morals and opinions change, so things they didn't regard as a problem at the time could still come back to haunt them. 

"We've got to research you with the same eye that we're researching your opponent," says Michael Rejebian, a Democratic opposition researcher. "You're not going to like, most times, what I find, but at the end of the day it helps you."

Part of the damage to Northam's reputation derived from the fact that he and his team weren't ready to respond to the yearbook revelation. At first, he apologized for appearing in a photo that showed someone in blackface and someone else in a Ku Klux Klan costume. The next day, he claimed he wasn't in the photo but admitted to appearing in blackface on another occasion.

"Even if you know about something, but no one else in the campaign knows, this stuff comes up and then you've got to have a response in 15 minutes," Rejebian says. "Having the information allows you the time to craft a truthful, legitimate, thoughtful response."


Knowing Where to Look for Skeletons in the Closet

Rejebian and his partner Alan Huffman wrote a book about opposition research (known colloquially as "oppo") called We're With Nobody

Too often, Huffman says, contemporary campaigns rely on easily obtainable information drawn from internet searches or their own video tracking of the opposing candidate. Such "easy catches" can make for quick media hits but don't offer the depth of hiring a pro to spend a couple of weeks nosing around. 

"I still do the full meal deal when it comes to oppo, but that's not always the case," Huffman says. "Many campaigns rely on a more superficial approach to analyzing a candidate's fitness to serve, which would not likely encompass details a source could lead you to, and which may be documented in the musty shelves of a library."

An experienced researcher will know where to look. The story of U.S. Sen. Larry Craig being arrested at the Minneapolis airport for lewd conduct back in 2007 didn't break until a couple of months after the arrest. Someone figured out that since there were no direct flights between Washington, D.C., and Craig's home state of Idaho, it was worth checking the arrest records around the airport where he was most likely to change planes. 

"That's what it really comes down to: Do you have the money and do you have someone who's experienced enough to know where to look?" says Larry Zilliox, a retired opposition researcher.


Due Diligence and the Thomas Eagleton Question

In an earlier era, due diligence was essentially a foreign concept.

When Democrat George McGovern chose Thomas Eagleton as his running mate in the 1972 presidential race, vice presidential nominees were still a last-minute selection at conventions. McGovern offered Eagleton the position following a two-minute phone conversation.

It turned out that Eagleton had undergone electroshock treatments for depression years earlier. Eighteen days later, he was dropped from the ticket. Later, when asked why he hadn't mentioned the treatment, Eagleton said no one had asked him about it.

"We went over names casually, didn't do any background checking," McGovern campaign manager Gary Hart -- later a presidential candidate himself -- told NPR in 2012. "It wasn't mandated in those days as it is now. Certainly after '72 it came to be mandated. But the people trusted other people's word."

These days, vice presidential candidates undergo thorough vetting. What about candidates for less visible posts? 

Hennessy, the Democratic consultant, says it would be a mistake for anyone running for Congress, statewide office or mayor not to undergo self-vetting. Sefl, the strategist, argues that even candidates for state legislature or lower-profile offices should go through the process. Their races might not draw much attention but any juicy disclosure very well might.

"No matter how old or buried something may be, all it takes is one mention of it online to ignite into a bigger story," Sefl says.

Every serious campaign should do serious research on itself, to be prepared for anything that could possibly come up, says Carney, the GOP consultant.

"I wouldn't work for a candidate who says, 'Oh, no, I'm perfect,'" he says. "You know there are huge landmines down the road."

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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